Economic Justice for Insiders and Outsiders

Biblical laws of business ethics.

Print this page Print this page

Despite the objections and stipulations of many sages and teachers, this justificatory theme survived in Jewish legal texts and folkways,and persists even today among the unscrupulous. Sometimes, the context is relatively innocuous. There are plenty of retail businesses where a landtzman [fellow Jew] might be spared the markups or spurious extras that a typical customer would expect as part of the hard sell. In other cases, it is more insidious. For instance, within certain circles there is no moral stigma attached to defrauding the secular government of this country, or even that of Israel, in support of institutions that would otherwise be circumspect about the smallest point in Jewish law.

One factor which is often blamed for this unfortunate trend is a desire to overcome the real and perceived disadvantages that Jews faced as a minority culture. If, during times of severe persecution, oppressed Jews had to deceive their neighbors in order to observe their faith, would it not be difficult to condemn the same types of practices in other aspects of their lives?

If members of the surrounding culture took "finders keepers, losers weepers" as their social norm, would it not be an undue burden to hold to ourselves to a higher standard? When taxes were levied arbitrarily, even punitively, by local functionaries, was it wrong to conceal hard-earned assets? In a case where a Jew and a non-Jew had a legal dispute,the Jewish courts would have no jurisdiction, and the gentile courts might or might not be predisposed to rule equitably. Why not wink at the opportunity to take matters into one's own hands?

Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva each address this last question in the Talmudic discussion. Rabbi Ishmael suggests that in such a situation it is appropriate to use akifin (subterfuges) to accomplish what could not be accomplished through the legal system. Rabbi Akiva responds that one may not do so, even if one believes that one is entitled to do so,because it would lead to a desecration of the divine name. If the Jews are God's people, then even the perception of wrongdoing reflects negatively not only on one's own reputation, or that of entire community, but on God's holy name itself.

Therefore, the Talmudic ruling follows Rabbi Akiva. We may use the fullest extent of Jewish or secular law to press our claims, but we may not go beyond it at the expense of others, and in fact must show even greater rectitude than interpretation might allow. Even if the narrowest reading of the Torah would not obligate a Jew to return a lost object to a gentile, or would not penalize someone who engaged in deceptive practices against them, God demands more. Sometimes imbalances of power make it difficult for us to think of others using the term ahikha, "your brother," but in such cases we must still apply the term amitekha, "your neighbor."The sanctification of God's name demands no less.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller is the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Torah in Atlanta, GA. Previous to that, he served as director of the Distance Learning Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.